LOST: All My Backed Up Photos (AKA Checked Your Backed Up Files Lately?)

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I lost 5 year’s worth of photos the other day. It happened a few days ago, when I  started hearing an odd grinding sound coming from the hard disk (HDD) while I was using my PC. What I didn’t know then was that HDDs have an effective ‘shelf life’, after which their performance starts degrading. In my case, what appeared to be a mechanical failure very quickly led to the HDD ‘dying’ on me.

At the time, I was confident I could restore all my important files, and especially my precious digital photos, because I did actually do a backup (sometime last year). Unfortunately, as it turns out, I couldn’t find most of my backup CDs. Of the 3 disks I could find, 1 turned out to be corrupted. That one rotten CD happened to contain my only copies of all the photos taken during my college days.

To say I was upset would be putting it mildly. Still, you might as well profit from my sorry experience, so let me offer a few thoughts for your consideration when you’re next backing up your files (with special reference to digital photos).

1. Be Aware of shelf lives

Until someone figures out how to code data onto diamonds, there are no incorruptible, impervious digital storage mediums. HDDs, CDs and DVDs will all eventually die. Keeping in mind a storage medium’s ‘probable expiry date’ can help you avoid a nasty shock and prepare to replace it when necessary.

Sadly, there’s no real consensus on how long a HDD in a home user environment could realistically be expected to last, though there’s a lot of anecdotal ‘evidence’ and some studies in business environs, such as Google’s 2007 study (here in PDF). Still, a useful rule of thumb would be to expect a HDD to be usable for about 5 years or so, and plan your computer maintenance/upgrades accordingly.

CDs and DVDs, though by far the most popular external storage medium for most consumers, are also more prone to failure, since they can be exposed to more physical damage than an HDD (humidity, direct sunlight, clumsy handling, a frisky cat, etc).  Like HDDs, there are no major studies conclusively stating how long they should last in a home environment (though there are informal studies, such as this one from Tech Arp). In fact, with so many variables to be taken into account, the most that can be said for a CD’s or DVD’s shelf life is: It will last a few years, unless it gets damaged or you’re just plain unlucky.

2.  Occasional housekeeping is still needed.

I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a good idea to spot-check my backups from time to time, just to make sure they’re still readable, rather than wait until I need to recover the files. Ideally, backups would be checked for integrity every few months. In the messy, stressed-out real world however, once a year would probably be more realistic. Whatever your personal schedule, this is the time to go through all the files saved to check they can be read, and to replace any storage media that starts acting up.

3. Sharing your photos as ‘social backing up’

Though the cost of storage media has been steadily dropping, buying all the necessary storage space can still put a dent in  your wallet. Plus, you still have to deal with physically managing and maintaining them. If  you don’t have too many photos you need to save, and don’t mind sharing them with others, you might consider trying the following:

  • Give copies to friends
    This only really works with group or event photos (because even close friends probably won’t want your private family snapshots), but sharing group/event digital photos with your friends is a nice way of sharing the memories – and if something happens to the photos on one computer, you can always ask a friend for another copy of the set.  Incidentally, this was how I managed to recover most of my lost photos.
  • Upload to free online services, e.g., Flickr, Picasa Web Albums or Facebook
    A friend of mine who works as a flight attendant saves many of his best photos onto Flickr, so he can access them even when traveling. Another uses Picasa Web Albums to share photos with faraway friends and save space on his HDD. Of course, there are privacy  and security issues involved in doing this, so uploading private photos may not be wise. But if you want a storage source that’s accessible online, don’t want to pay for physical or online storage and are willing to live within the limitations, then this may be for you.

4. Multiple backups aren’t just for the paranoid.

Backing up your most important files is good. Making multiple backups is better, if you’re concerned that something might happen to the backups.

How far you take this is really up to you. One of the Quality Assurance analysts in our Response Lab set up multiple hard drives in a RAID array on his home PC, and also has backups on a Network Attached Storage (NAS) system (more about that below); plus he’s contemplating keeping another copy of his important files in an external HDD at the office. 3 backups in 3 different locations, in multiple media types.

OK, so maybe you don’t have to go that far. But having multiple backups in multiple media types in separate locations give you the option of recovering your photos if something happens to the stuff on one medium, or in one location.

As an example, in my case, I originally had my photos saved on 1 HDD and 1 CD – and both went kaput. After enduring the trouble of retrieving my photos from friends, I’ve now upgraded my backup ‘strategy’ to 2 separate HDDs (though both in the same computer), with one for frequent access and one for long-term storage; 2 DVDs (stored safely elsewhere) as a separate long-term storage – and a copy on a USB Flash drive, just in case….

So What Are My Options?

If money is no concern, or you have a lot of data, or you want more features than are offered by free services, it’s time to think of Your Backup Strategy. Figuring out a backup strategy is actually a rather personal task, since it has to take into account:

  • How much data (digital photos, or whatever) you need to back up
  • How much time you you can dedicate to backing up on a regular basis
  • Your finances, and to some extent, your lifestyle (backing up can be more of a hassle if you travel a lot, for example)
  • Your tech-savviness, or whoever’s savviness you can call on (e.g., a neighbour’s nephew amiable friend who can help you)
  • What storage medium is available in your area, or is easily obtainable

Since all the above can vary from person to person, the best backup strategy is really whatever works best for you in keeping your stuff safe. Here’s a few last thoughts on the various storage choices available:

  • Hard disks (HDD)
    Whether external or internal, a HDD is often the first choice for people wanting to backup backup their digital photos.  The disadvantage of using HDDs is their comparatively high price. Still, as prices of HDDs continue to drop, you could consider treating them like (unwieldy) DVDs. For professional photographers, who typically shoot hundreds of photos at an event (with each photo of a gigantic size), an article on All About Photography suggests getting a separate HDD for each major function, rather than putting all the photos on a single large drive. The HDDs for each event can subsequently be archived. Also, to help you gauge a HDD’s lifespan, there are utility programs that track the HDD’s health, so that hopefully you can replace the HDD before it takes a swan dive.
  • CDs & DVDs
    CDs and DVDs (whether it’s CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R or DVD-RW) are cheap, easy-to-use and portable, making them the most popular external storage media. The main drawback of CDs (and to a lesser extent, DVDs) is that they require the most care in handling, and probably the most frequent maintenance to replace corrupted disks. On the other hand, they’re are so cheap that for some users it can be more cost effective to make multiple copies of files on CDs and just periodically replace any faulty ones.
  • USB flash drives
    USB flash drives (aka thumb drives, USB drives, etc) have a slightly suspect reputation at the moment, with their persona non grata status at many offices and their role in recent malware outbreaks (Worm:W32/Autorun). Still, when  proper precautions are taken, a USB flash drive can be most convenient for frequent backups. As a caveat, USB flash drives only became popular within the last five years and I can’t find any studies about how long they ‘normally’ last under real-world use, so keep in mind this medium may also have a shelf life to be accounted for.
  • Online Storage
    In the last couple years, online storage has become a viable option for most consumers, and there are plenty of online backup services available.  This type of storage is most suited for users who value accessibility and less physical management – and have a decent, reliable Internet connection. Of course, we’ve got one – our Online Backup service – but you can also search online; among the plethora of online storage services available, there will probably be one to suit your specific needs.
  • Network Attached Storage (NAS)
    Once solely the province of corporations and now available to home consumers, NAS systems are a kind of off-site, centralized data storage unit that a computer can connect to for file saving and sharing. Some of the advantages of an NAS system is that it can be accessed by any computer in the home network; as a standalone, low-energy system, it might be more cost-effective to run than sticking multiple HDDs into a standard PC; and it can have multiple HDDs.  Personally, I haven’t tried this yet, but for users who particularly value accessibility and potential for file sharing, an NAS system might be worth researching.

And after considering all that, it’s just a matter of seeing what’s right for you, backing up regularly – and hoping you never accidentally lose your data. Or photos.

CC image by: Roman Pinzon-Soto


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USB HD (1,5 TB, about 90 euros). Every second Sunday I take full backup from my home computer. Then I take HD to my office and put it in a locked drawer and keep it there for two weeks. Nice and easy. Once in a while I read my pictures with my work laptop to check everything is OK.

Backup takes a quite long time to complete, but that happens on Sunday.

Wow..I wish I read this site a month ago..my photos are gone. They were the most precious things to me beside the kids so I was devastated.One day I just plugged my external hard drive in(usb syle) and nothing appeared.I took the hard drive into a professional data recovery agency yet even they could not recover them!! I always thought to back them up yet didn’t make it in time!! My hubby transferred them from an older hard drive to the new one this year yet deleted them off the previous drive????? I never thought it would happen to me.I had my last video of my mum on there & first day of school for my little one & first bike ride without trainers etc. and 100 other folders of every xmas,birthday,holiday.. Luckily I had emailed several of mums last days photos to rellies & had my cruise photos on facebook otherwise they would be lost…..so back up & back up again.I only lost 5 years of the kids & have their baby photos in print! So digital is great yet plan for the unexpected!

And if a water or fire accident happens on sunday, then you’re badly screwed. Even if a minor accident like hdd crash happens on during that sunday backup process, you still screwed.

I used to use CDs, then DVDs, but it all takes so much time and effort. I’ve been using online backup for months now and it is fantastic. All my new files just magically get backup up! Even different versions of the same file are saved, so much better than finding a DVD in a stack of them!

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